In his latest contribution to popular culture, Australia’s preeminent playwright, David Williamson, tackles the thorny issues of infertility, in vitro fertilization, surrogacy and the associated birth rights. It’s new territory for the 61-year-old, who rose to prominence with blokey works steeped in the politics of gender, football and the federal government.
In “Birthrights” three female characters are central. When Helen (Kate Raison) discovers she is infertile, her sister Claudia (Michelle Doake) volunteers to bear her a child. Claudia later decides she also wants to be a mother, but despite repeated attempts at IVF, she fails to conceive. Their own mother, Margaret (Lorraine Bayly), is a sounding board for the sisters and an intermediary when their relationship breaks down; her daughters use her feminist path as a yardstick of their own lives.
Williamson wrote “Birthrights” after extensive research with people experienced in surrogacy. That research underpins his firm grasp of the issues and imbues the play with authenticity. His characters and their experiences are honest, assured and, at times, chillingly accurate. It’s a relief to see he has jettisoned his trademark glib gags and whittled down the zeitgeisty references to contempo issues that so often ring hollow onstage.
But “Birthrights” still contains some trademark Williamson. He obviously has been watching “Sex in the City” — out of nowhere the mom offers: “The best lover I ever had was a Japanese vibrator.”
And Claudia’s early jibe at “the patriarchal medical system” is vintage Williamson. Does anyone still speak like that?
Doake’s Claudia is too shrill at times, but she’s well offset by the assured perfs of Ensemble Theater vets Raison and Bayly.
“Birthrights” had its world premiere at the Melbourne Theater Co. in April, despite Williamson having promised the privilege to Ensemble topper Sandra Yates. Australia’s wealthiest grant-backed troupe, the Sydney Theater Co. has habitually produced the annual Williamson sellout world preem, but this year missed out.
The decision, apparently a reward for the many repertory Williamsons staged at Ensemble over time, may not have been the right call. Several cast members stumbled over lines — hard to tell if the cause was opening-night nerves or a lack of preparation. The costumes were so haphazard that they were a distraction, while the set — a bulging mass of marbled blue — cramped the players and was eye-scorchingly ugly. If the issue was money, surely Ensemble could have spent a little more — a new Williamson is a B.O. guarantee, after all.